Angst over college admissions


The school year is fresh and new. But high school seniors with college ambitions began their academic slog weeks ago, on Aug. 1, when the Common Application went live. Carefully curating application content, they’re pushing hard toward deadlines at colleges statewide and across the country.

Already, the admissions process has taxed these seniors more than most. Juggling the ACT with old and new versions of the SAT, these students, as juniors, stared down an unusually daunting lineup of admissions exams. They did so knowing they face long odds at top schools. Many selective colleges reported record numbers of applicants last year.

Fueling fears further: The number of international students attending American colleges and universities continues to grow. According to 2016 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data, international enrollment at U.S. schools, led by students from China and India, rose 6 percent last year. Global competition won’t wait for the workplace.

Online message boards bear witness to students’ angst. They share accolades, begging strangers to “chance” their admission odds; they discuss double-digit applications — hoping, just hoping, the blitz approach works. Offline, parents strategize about admissions-proofing transcripts, built to withstand scrutiny and inspire awe.

The mother of high school and college students, I know how fraught the undergraduate admissions process has become. For some, it’s a punishing obsession.

Colleges are pushing a healthier message. Through “Turning the Tide,” a report and two-year initiative launched in early 2016 by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, they hope to “re-shape” college admissions. The initiative is endorsed by admissions deans at more than 100 institutions, including the Ivies, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest University.

Referencing adolescent anxiety and depression, its stance is strong and sensible: “In the face of deeply troubling trends that only seem to be worsening, it is time to say ‘Enough,’” write report authors.

Comprehensive and holistic, the initiative seeks to promote meaningful service, reduce academic pressure, and equalize opportunities for dis- advantaged students.

Academic recommendations, however, are vague. Students shouldn’t overload on AP classes, notes the report, but some can manage intensive schedules. This is true, of course ― but where to draw the line? Fortunately, guidelines for extracurricular involvement and service are specific and reward genuine engagement. Two to three outside activities is plenty. Quality beats quantity.

In response, some schools have rewritten application questions. UNC-Chapel Hill endorsed the initiative, says Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, “not least because the approach to admissions that ‘Turning the Tide’ calls for is pretty consistent with the way we’ve tried to do things here for a long time.” Still, UNC’s application has been revised, says Farmer, to “reflect more clearly some of the themes that ‘Turning the Tide’ is trying to champion.”

Instructions ask applicants to share activities that have been “especially worthwhile”; applicants are assured that caring for a family member, for example, is just as valuable as founding a club.

Such changes make sense.

What else helps? While high schools and parents can’t control competition, they can alleviate pressure. A good place to start: rejecting the determinism that says the future depends on where a student attends college. It isn’t true. And it turns high school into an intolerable performance treadmill.

Context is helpful, too. As troubling as these problems are, they’re confined largely to high achievers. Many other students, as assessments show, aren’t ready for college work. Others don’t believe it’s within their grasp.

So some students need their sights raised. Others need a gentle reality check. They all need freedom — from parents and others — to own their ambitions, successes, and failures. On that, their future does depend.

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Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.

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